Wildcats are usually gray-brown and have bushy tails and a clearly-defined pattern of black stripes that cover their entire body. They have short soft fur. Their color is like that of a domestic tabby cat, which makes them hard to see within their forest homes. European wildcats have winter fur which is thick and sometimes makes them look bigger than other wildcats. Wildcats in Asia have a background color in their fur that is more yellow or reddish, with a pattern overlying the color of dark spots that sometimes tend to converge into stripes. Wildcats in Africa have lighter colored fur, ranging from a sandy yellow to brown and gray, with darker spots and stripes. On the backs of their ears the fur has a typical reddish tint.
Wildcats live throughout southwestern Asia, continental Europe, and in Africa in the savannah regions. They inhabit desert regions and are restricted to waterways and mountainous areas. Wildcats in Europe are mostly found in deciduous forests.
Wildcats are normally active at night, dusk or dawn, but can also be active during the day, especially in areas where there are not many humans. Asiatic wildcats especially will often be active during the day. They often travel far at night seeking prey. They are mainly solitary, except during the mating period. Within its own territory, the wildcat deposits scent marks at different sites, and they may also leave visual markers on trees by scratching them as well as leaving scent through glands on its paws. They shelter in the hollows of fallen or old trees, rock fissures, and nests or earths that have been abandoned by other animals, never digging its own burrow.
Small rodents (mice, rats and voles) are the primary prey of the wildcat, followed by birds (especially waterfowl such as ducks, galliformes, passerines and pigeons), dormice, hares, insectivores and nutria.
Wildcats are polygynous. At the time a female is ready to mate, males in the area gather near her and compete for access. The wildcat has an estrus period in December to February and another one in May to July. The gestation period lasts for 60 to 68 days. Litters range in size from 1 to 7 kittens. The young start hunting alongside their mothers when they are 60 days old, and after 140 to 150 days will begin to move independently. Kittens are more or less fully grown at 10 months, though growth of the skeleton continues past 18 to 19 months. The family disbands after about five months, the kittens going off to establish territories for themselves. Females are sexually mature from about 6 months.
Wildcats are under threat from habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Further threats to European wildcats are population isolation, collisions with automobiles, and diseases transmitted via domestic cats.
Interbreeding with domestic cats makes it very difficult to estimate the wildcat population size. In some areas, estimations have been made for specific populations: Scotland: 1,000 to 4,000 individuals, Germany: 1,700 to 5,000, Slovenia: 2,000 or less; Poland: 100 to 150, Slovakia: about 1,500, and Romania: 10,000.
Wildcats have an important role controlling populations of rodents as well as other small mammals. It is this activity that likely led them to domestication.
The ancient Egyptians were thought to have been the first people to domesticate the cat, just four thousand years ago. However, in 2004 French researchers in Cyprus discovered the ninety-five-hundred-year-old remains of a cat and a human buried together. More recently, an analysis of cat teeth and bones from a fifty-three-hundred-year-old Chinese settlement indicated that cats were eating grains, rodents, and leftovers from human meals. It would seem that after the advent of agriculture, cats in Asia and the Near East began to gather near grain stores and farms, where there were many mice and rats. Humans tolerated the exterminators of these pests, and the cats became more and more comfortable around people. Whether this association came about five or ten millennia in the past, evidence suggests cats were not in the human domestic domain for as long a period as dogs, these animals having been human companions for maybe forty thousand years.